The world has been paying attention to Sweden for bucking the global trends on a national lockdown. The jury is still out on the wisdom of its approach to Covid-19 but there is no question that it has taken a deliberate approach in what it believes works for its citizens.
The same is happening across Africa.
Take Togo, for instance, where a three-month state of emergency was declared. After recording cases of the virus, the West African country enforced border closures and physical distancing. But instead of a shutdown, it instead decided to pay close attention to its people — 85% of whom work in the informal sector in a subsistence economy.
What is good for the West is not necessarily good for West Africa. While the United States debates socialism, water and electricity are to be supplied for free during the three month period in Togo.
Togo is not alone. Ghana has also announced free electricity, water and a tax holiday. Malawi stumbled on a no-lockdown model with the help of its judiciary, outrightly rejecting a shutdown, because to do in a country that is one of the poorest in the world, with more than 80% of the country’s population engaged in subsistence farming, would have meant risking people’s lives to poverty at a faster rate than Covid-19.
Following the court order, the government introduced a six-month emergency cash transfer program for small businesses in and around the country’s major markets in cities and other districts, while keeping open markets and farms. Public transport — operational for certain hours — continues to be available to ensure economic life continues.
“African governments should remember that the logic behind implementing lockdowns in the West, unfortunately, does not apply in Africa,” a London research think tank wrote recently. “Differing conditions, such as an unfriendly relationship between citizens and law enforcement, millions living in extreme poverty, the lack of a substantive government safety net, and the significant threat from existing deadly diseases, means serious questions should be raised about the wisdom of African governments in merely copying the lockdown methods used in the West.”
It may also be that Africa has considerable experience dealing with pandemics and other public health crises. In 2014, Liberia imposed isolation on West Point in the capital Monrovia. The strategy did not stop Ebola transmission and the government quickly pivoted into a community-led approach for effective quarantine — each approach designed by individual communities based on their respective realities.
Those lessons remain in the wake of the coronavirus.
One of the goals of Sweden’s light-touch approach is to attain herd immunity within its population. Much of Africa’s goal is to ensure that its people don’t fall out of a potentially bottomless economic pit that also exacerbates the public health crisis.
Beyond the pursuance of herd immunity, African nations are more concerned about the livelihood of their citizens, who are mostly in the informal sector. Refusing to engage in a total lockdown or quickly ending it if implemented has been a responsible, thoughtful approach which ensures that people don’t suffer more than they have to.
Nigeria imposed a lockdown only in three key urban areas of its 36 states and only for a few weeks, having recently lifted the lockdown partially and allowing local businesses to begin running.
“We can’t stop economic activity in our country, our social lives, our children’s education, so we need to do something that will enable us to live our normal lives,” Ghana’s Health Minister Kwaku Agyeman-Manu said when the country lifted its three-week lockdown. “It is becoming evident that the virus will be with us for a long time, we had better start learning how to thrive in spite of it.”
Africa’s governments are not often in the news for good reason and the opprobrium that they receive is often well deserved. But in this particular instance, they have acted responsibly and thoughtfully — customising global recommendations in order to safeguard local imperatives.
As it becomes evident that the severity of lockdowns does not necessarily constitute “flattening of the curve”, the world may need to pay attention to African governments — and for good reason this time.
Jideonwo is co-founder of African media group, RED and human-flourishing company, Joy, Inc. Morenikeji is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts interested in a future anchored on flourishing people, platforms and policies